Monthly Archives: January 2009

fourstones in the Black!

Talk all I want about the sharing economy (which in wikipedia oddly redirects to remix culture – try gift economy) and the 100s of MP3s I’ve uploaded to here and ccMixter, most people wait patiently for me to stop babbling about philosophy and want to know “Yea, but how do you make money at this thing?”

That’s what my five albums on Magnatune are supposed to be for. Now, as a remixer, I sample musicians and I expect them to get paid with a cut of the profits and everything was hunky dory at first. Then they changed their royalty policy and I was left in debt, perhaps the only open music artist that owed their label money – just like the real world. I felt like I had arrived. Combine that with flat sales of my last two releases and things were grim in the summer, looking like my account would stay in the negative. (Just to be clear: The only reason this happened was because three years ago John and I felt the sampled artists were underpaid and he retro-actively paid them at the time. That money had to come from somewhere, so it was my account that stayed in the red. For, you know, three years.)

Meanwhile, you could count me as one of the skeptical when John told me about the whole streaming subscription thing. This is where people stop buying albums and pay a subscription to Magnatune for an all-access all-you-can-eat pass.

Well, color me wrong (again) because now that the tally is in for the first full six months of subscriptions turned on, it turns out to be a big fourstones windfall and lo, and behold – my outgoing royalties got paid off. This same time was really slow on licenses (not sure what that means) but the streaming thing kicked ass. An excited email from John (“Dude, you’re paid up on the vig” – I’m paraphrasing) and my account balance shows I’ve crept over that red line into profit.

I’m mainly happy for the artists I sampled because they’re getting more when there’s more money coming to Magnatune.

But I have to say, no matter what happens, I’m still most proud of the fact that there’s 14,000 hours of 100% new music on ccMixter and in the Commons that didn’t exist in the world when we started the site. I’ve used them extensively in my last few projects and I’m just that lucky because I get to sample them, collaborate with them and (hopefully) support them just a little.

Jason Scott (2): You’re Dead

On the flight back to Sydney from having spent a great evening with CC Australia folks, it occurred to me that Jason Scott did me a grand favor with his churlish hostility yesterday:

…how’s it feel to be dead?…Respect for the dead…Where do I send the flowers? I miss you already.

and continues on his own blog “dead dead dead.”

In the post he was commenting on I explained how my family came to a financial crossroad: either hang on to all our “stuff,” or travel the world indefinitely. By choosing the latter, to Jason, I have shuffled off the mortal coil. I am “dead.” (Of course, I didn’t realize this at the time – had I known the choice to experience life to its fullest, amongst the world, would kill me, I probably would have chosen to hang on to my records and books a little longer. I mean, I liked Stockholm a lot but I wouldn’t have died for it.)

Still, the last four years at ccMixter has taught me something pretty spectacular about the act of gifting. Personally, I was in it because I thought musicians could benefit from an alternative to the music industry, because I having was fun, because it dove-tailed a lot my disparate careers and interests and many other reasons. What I was not prepared for was the connection between gifting, the act of giving music into the Commons, and the creative process itself. And the same awakening happens all the time with musicians participating in the project. Last week colab commented on the fact that, since moving to ccMixter from the Peter Gabriel remix site, several producers he thought he knew well, were producing completely unexpected pieces of music. The exact same musicians, simply by changing from an All Rights Reserved environment to ccM were now making more innovative, creative works.

I’m working on a long winded explanation of how I think this continues to happen on ccM but Lewis Hyde, a scholar who inspired Lessig and many others at CC and who’s work is foundational to Creative Commons, put it this way in the “The Gift” from 1979:

…the primary commerce of art is a gift exchange, that unless the work is the realization of the artist’s gift and unless we, the audience, can feel the gift it carries, there is no art.

When my family and I ran the finances it was obvious to me that we’ve been given such a gift through this opportunity, that after we cleared the amount we needed to travel, we would gift the rest back and we ended up giving away a lot of stuff — in the artistic spirit taught me by ccMixter. Through a crazy, lucky (stupidly so) set of circumstances, my life had philosophically merged with my art and career.

Too bad I’m dead and can’t enjoy it.

That Jason chooses to misinterpret my post and lump me in with others, who I don’t know or have contact with, is his own way of doing things. Hell, I don’t even know this Jason guy. I have no idea who he is. In my few contacts with him I have been nothing but civil and humble and very enthusiastically carried water for him and his documentary and endeavors. In response he’s been nothing but uncivil, unpleasant and insulting. Personally insulting — did I run over this guy’s cat or something?

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised since that kind a narrow, pugilistic conversation style has re-emerged in the last 10 years. (Many of us are old enough to remember millions of “America, Love It or Leave It” bumper stickers as something other than a compassionate outreach to the counter-culture.) We live in a time where a satire of this bully-style insulting in the form of Stephen Colbert gets higher ratings than the explicit pleading for civil discourse by his lead-in, Jon Stewart.

One of the things I’m most proud of at ccM is that for about 50,000 forum posting, reviews and interactions between musicians, the discourse has been genuinely cool. I don’t think I’ve had to nuke 10 postings in four years due to ad hominem attacks. People get the gifting relationship they have between each other and insulting somebody as you present them with a gift is not socially accepted.

Jason’s original post was framed as a general argument against “cloud computing” which he later narrowed to people who thought the cloud would be there forever. The tone of the piece then narrows that down even further to people who are willing to be in an abusive relationship with him while he calls them names. In my line of work I can’t afford to narrow the field that much even if I had a Tourette’s tick that disallowed me to have a decent exchange of ideas with someone.

All this hatred, all this venom, all this hostile machismo because I dared to present a different point of view.

Jason: As far as I’m concerned, I’m willing to have a discussion about the merits of the cloud, about my feelings on the Franklin Street Statement, I’ll even take a shot at the existential meaning of being and having, as I understand it.

But talk to me without couching it insults because, since you really have no idea who I am, the insults can’t possibly apply to me and are only a reflection on you.

Jason Scott: “You’re a Sucker”

I am a lazy parent. Yelling at my sons, making them feel bad and calling them names is a lot of energy, so I only did so when it was absolutely necessary. I learned early that nothing teaches a lesson like screwing up. So, as long as the consequences of their actions didn’t affect others, as a rule, I let them screw up. Less effort than yammering away at them. And sure beat making them feel bad about something, especially when it was something I do all the time.

We’re talking about losing stuff. I lose stuff all the time. Annually losing my wallet is how I reassure myself that I’m still alive. I’m on a first name basis with operator 45 at the credit card comany. Yelling at my kids for losing stuff seemed like a grand waste of energy. If the thing they lost mattered to them then the “lesson is learned.” My job wasn’t to rub their noses on it. Even I’m not THAT big a dick. If the thing didn’t matter to them then what was the point of making a big deal?

But Jason finds it necessary to yell at you and call you names because you’re setting yourself up to lose your email inbox by using gmail. Would you give a stranger on the street $5 to hold for you and walk away with the hope he’ll be at the same corner tomorrow? I kind of feel like that most of my life. Regret’s a bitch, but it ain’t the worst thing I can think of.

I hesitate to state his case for fear of misrepresentation, but I think Jason can’t imagine a sentient being deciding to use gmail. The big danger? Losing your inbox. (The privacy issues used to freak me out but I don’t believe privacy exists anyway so that’s that.) Well, I’ve lost lots of inboxes along the way in the dozens of laptops and external drives and monster towers and raid arrays and mirrored backups that I’ve used including once where I “confirmed” deleting it when asked “are you sure?” — I’m still here, poking the bear. If I was an archivist, like Jason, the cloud would probably freak me out too. But I’m not. It’s a very, very convenient place to hold my shit. Oh, regarding my shit…

True story: some months ago my wife and I sold our house. Let the lease expire on the car. Gave away our 500 books. Gave away 2,000 albums. Let go of all the furniture. Berkeley restricts trash pickups to just one can so there were lots of trips to the dump, including all the music I’ve recorded for the last 35 years. I figured I was saving my kids a trip to the dump after I’m dead.

What was left were two Stratocasters and 15 boxes of stuff sitting in a storage locker in Oakland – 10 of which are her clothes. After three months of living on the road it occurred to me that if it all burned down I still wouldn’t throw myself into the Danube. I’d miss my Strats for a few minutes, then look forward to Hawaiian sunsets with my wife and sharing a laugh with my son over iChat about how the dorm ate his Wii controller.

I’ve got boogeymen in my life but gmail ain’t among them. And neither are you.

The Downside of Rational

I came of age in an irrational environment. My parents were not superstitious or even religious (“Where was God in the camps?” my mother would ask, referring to my parents’ all-expense-paid visit with the Nazis) but there was plenty of guilt and fear, a smattering of racism and lots and lots of tribalism floating in and around the house.

Outside and in the media there was the counterculture which prized idealized naivete (“I have a dream…”, “…but I’m not the only one,”) packaged all so romantically. It would never, in a million years, occur to me there was a connection between these worlds, so I used the romantic one to fight off the other. Everybody I knew or looked up to were musicians. All of them were likely, if not proven, habitual, if not chronic, controlled-substance users. Keith Richards was an envied role model. Sure, life was foggy, yet, somehow, meaning was everywhere.

It wasn’t until later, as I started to inhabit the geeky programming culture, one of a more scientific, mathematical background, that I came into close contact with the “rational” side of the world. By the time the Web kicked in and I participated in (as I saw it) no-bullshit communities like MetaFilter it started really kicking in: the fog is, you know, fog. Clear thinking is not a bad thing. Who knew? I wasn’t practiced at it but I was drawn to it because it felt like the grown up thing to do. Christ, I was raising children, it was certainly the responsible thing — otherwise it all seemed so risky to do that by the seat of your hippie-torn jeans. I embraced my non-believing, angry atheism. (I’m not actually angry, but that’s the meme-label the media puts on it; apparently “angry” is the only kind of atheist there is in the world.) I gained a certain level of precision in my speech (although I slip, er, often) and had a quickly waning tolerance for those that spoke with less. I read a lot. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc. I watched a lot of BookTV on the weekends.

Tonight I saw Kristin Hersh’s one-woman show “Paradoxical Undressing” in the beautifully intimate setting of a tent in Hyde Park in the middle of Sydney. She read from the diary she wrote as a teenage underground rock star with Throwing Muses and sang songs that related to the passages she read from. She portrayed herself as the prototypical anti-analysis “artist.” She wasn’t obsessed with music, she was possessed by it. The songs were in her — denying that would be akin to denying a breath. So she got out a razor and “tried to cut them out of [her].” The show itself was a brilliant display of artistry, flawless. In my earlier foggy days I would have been Blown Away, enraptured by her story, her gifts and, my god, her.

But as I sat there, ten feet from this wonder, I caught myself analyzing the anti-analyzer. It was as if I was back at Microsoft, where I had been categorically scolded to put aside childish things, sitting in on some project review — I was “finding the holes.” I mean, seriously, how could you have “songs” inside you?? Puh-leaze. Music is the function of the brain and fingers. Get a grip. It’s neurons plus kinesiology. Oh, she, tried to kill herself? OK, fine, damaged neurons and kinesiology.

In my rush to reason, I had habitualized a way of thinking that was obscuring the fog. The fanciful, sexy, romantically meaningful fog. Even if I check these feelings in the future, its not like I can walk into the next situation and think “Now, remember: be naive.” I’m pretty sure naivete doesn’t work that way.

Hey ASCAP: Your Shit Stinks Too

OPEN LETTER TO ASCAP:
—————————————

You know, I love music. I just saw Neil Young perform tonight and I realized just how much music stirs me up. Some folks have video games, some live for fishing, some dig cars and while I don’t begrudge anybody their passions, for me, it’s music. And it’s why for the last five years, I’ve devoted my time to trying to make musicians’ lives a little easier, a little more productive and even, a little more profitable.

It’s all the more reason why it stings to read that you see those of us in the free culture movement as something to demon-ize. Something that needs to be addressed in order to “counter the growing prevalence of the ‘copy left/free culture’ pontificators in the public discourse about creators rights.” [via].

Now, Creative Commons is not a perfect organization (trust me) and Professor Lessig is hardly an infallible god, but these folks, and I as a supporter and contract worker for them, think they are doing musicians a valid service — providing an alternative, not a replacement, for other avenues. You’ve expressed concerns and I think Lessig has addressed them rather reasonably. The fact of the matter is that CC and Lessig are as an agreeable bunch as you’re going to get in this world that advocates reforms. (His positions are certainly more “reasonable” that I, personally, would be.)

I can’t figure out what’s in it for you to characterize the free culture movement, as expressed by Lessig, as so dangerous.

I don’t want to construct any straw men here, but maybe it’s that by licensing a piece of music under CC, a musician might be passing up collection opportunities?

Well, when I do a search of the word ‘music’ on Google and filter by “free to use or share” I get 41.8 million results – and that’s just for NonCommercial licenses. (Yes, that’s ccMixter, the music site I admin for CC, at the top of the results.) Yet, in five years I’ve never heard of a single musician complain that licensing a piece of music under CC has cost them money. Now, it’s possible that I live in some kind of sycophantic bubble where bad news never reaches me, in which case, I ask you to educate me. Of the tens of millions of CC licensed music out there, do you have documented cases where musicians were hurt in any way?

I recently heard John Buckman say that the people at collection agencies are “good people stuck in a bad system.” I’d love to have you prove him right on the first part and wrong on the second part. But I keep reading about cafes and clubs closing because they can’t afford or don’t see why they have to pay your very high rates for songs they may or may not have performed. As clubs and other venues are no longer available to new artists, how does that help any musicians earn a living? It seems heavy handed and counter productive to me. Most musicians I know would love to make money, but when circumstances don’t live up to that goal, getting their music out there is a valid next best case scenario.

Our goals are the same, it doesn’t make sense to me why we can’t work together to them happen. Are you sure the best way to go is to continue pissing on this community? You know, we’re not just Princeton law professors and “pontificators” [sic] – we’re musicians too. That “growing prevalence” you’re seeing gaining in your rear view mirror is not just a bunch of blowhards – it’s that plus tens of millions of musicians.

We’re not perfect. Are you? We think we have a few things to teach you and we think, together we could do a lot of good for musicians on the Internet and beyond. You can deal with us now, or take a chance on being overrun by musicians who see something that you don’t seem willing to even discuss.

It’s not too late and February 3rd sounds like a great time to have some mutual education.

Otherwise, keep holding your nose when you take a crap over musicians who would otherwise embrace your service, keep using Yakuza-style intimidation on restaurant, bar and cafe owners and forbidding them to play any music at all, keep charging too much for any Internet music service to consider paying you anything at all — basically don’t change a thing in your attitude and tactics and you’ll be making our case all that easier that maybe, there was a time when you represented the needs of musicians, but that day has passed.

Peace,
VS

Warning: Sanli Collection Rip-off

One of the pitfalls of allowing sharing of content freely on the Web is that there will always be a crook that takes advantage of your generosity.

One of our a-list producers over on ccMixter, who goes by loveshadow is now reporting that a remix he licensed properly (for money) to a fashion web site has been lifted improperly by another web site which is using the sounds and images from the original video without permission.

This kind of thievery is particularly ridiculous considering how much fantastic music and images are out there that is perfectly legal to use for this kind of thing.

Loveshadow has made several attempts at contacting the offending site (Sanli Collection) without any response. He is perfectly within his rights to start legal proceeding but we can only imagine what a hassle that is. This kind of case is below the radar for the EFF but if anyone out there knows a lawyer who’d be willing to send a C&D on his behalf that might be all it takes to do the trick – just check with loveshadow first as I have no idea if he even wants to take it in that direction.

Brad Sucks: Curator

If you ever needed to manufacture an excuse to get on Brad’s good side, here comes Brad’s new podcast called Sellout Central. Genre is a funny thing. While I like good music across any boundary my tolerance for mediocre music in some genres is much lower than others so I need some one like Brad to pick through the mess and just pull out the best. In other words I would never dream of digging up the kind of music Brad has in the first podcast episode but through his curating I’m able to save myself a few 100 whinces to get to the good stuff.

I’ve been making a lot of noise about curating as the next step both privately and publicly possibly with a patron/sponsor angle. I certainly appreciate a CC by a huge artist getting all the attention that NIN is getting but I don’t think open music has a shot at making an impact until some unknown artist actually breaks and curating/podcasting has still not fulfilled all of it’s promises.

Brad’s nerd explanation seems a whole lot simpler than John’s Magnatune version. Maybe someone can apply that MC Jack’s amazing Cool Radio show?

Music Doesn’t Matter

As the main face and evangelist of ccMixter I have compiled a rather large list of the excuses to not participate in the site from both music appreciators and musicians. All the excuses seem to stem from a constellation of symptoms one might call boomer-itis. The boomers’ view on remixing, sampling, commercialization, sharing and the creative process in regards to music is the reason why music, of all transitions from analog to digital, has been the most wrenching. At the psychological core is the buried, traumatic truth that music as a cultural influence has completely dropped off the radar.

Boomers who lived through the 1960′s and still hold sway in the halls of politics and culture were so heavily influenced by the popular musicians of their day it is impossible for them to conceive (i.e. they live in complete denial) of a world where 99% of teen males are gaming and only a tiny percentage identifies in any culturally significant way to musicians. On the other hand, for people born after 1980 there is no sense of this loss at all, buried or otherwise. They have no reference point and therefore no understanding of the enormity of say, every release of a Beatles 45 RPM record. To them, the festival at Woodstock is at most “a concert” or more likely, an entry in Wikipedia about a concert some pony-tailed out-of-touch teacher made them look up.

The loss of teen-angst projection onto celebrity musicians is nothing but a favorable development to everybody else but a loss to the boomer’s point of view. On the shallow end of the hand-wringing over this shift, once acknowledged, is nothing more than the sentimental self-aggrandizing that boomers have perfected. The most valid case is the front and center ideology, no matter how naive or contrived, of a John Lennon has been replaced by what Jason Rohrer calls “murder simulators” like Grand Theft Auto. “Today’s pop-rock is a paradigm of a society that has no values; it is ubiquitous even though the record companies admit that most of it loses money,” mourns Donald Clarke in The Rise and Fall of Popular Music (1995, out of print) even before the advent of Halo and GTA.

Clarke is a boomer in every sense. His passion for music and what it represented in his life inspired him to devote his life (once laid off from his unionized auto factory job) to writing and critiquing modern pop music. Unfortunately, by the time he looked up from his assembly line to follow his muse in the mid-1990′s, he found the once powerful and influential world of Elvis, Dylan, Lennon and Morrison to be less relevant than a $3 cup of burnt espresso drowning in milk. (Note that by 2008 this transition is complete as it’s commonplace to get boomer music by Sir Paul, Ray and Joni while buying a latte at Starbucks and unheard of the other way around.)

“The economic machine unwittingly created by the counterculture,” Clarke continues, “sees to it that pop-rock is aimed at each generation of new customers, yet each year not only is it of less musical value, but the market gets smaller, so it is not selling very well these days.” 
Even though Clarke had no real way of predicting the rise of PC-based home recording or the Internet his diagnosis is shockingly relevant today. That these words were written when the ultra-boomerific Jonas Brothers were zygotes can be seen as prescient or depressing. Or both. Focusing strictly on the business model that became prevalent in music since the 1970′s he still manages to nail the cause on the head, still relevant 15 years later: “Perhaps the problem begins with the fact that nowadays we have less input into our own popular culture.”

Some marketing assholes with way too much time on their hands (is there any other kind?) are happy to declare that user generated content is dead. (FTR: if you actually use the term ‘user generated content’ you are already suffering from one-meeting-too-many-itis and need to find a real job.) As long as net neutrality holds I think it’s pretty obvious that any group of musicians that are sincere about their art will find an audience, including fans who tip, film producers who license and sponsors who sponsor. We just have to hang in there and remember where we really are in the cultural food chain. Hint: Not John Lennon circa 1970.

Happy and healthy new year to everybody!